By Jonathan Yardley
Wednesday, October 22, 2003
An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.
Nearly a quarter-century ago, Anne Tyler contributed a lovely essay, "Still Just Writing," to an invaluable book called "The Writer on Her Work." By then Tyler had pretty much told the nosy parkers of the press to get lost -- "Why do people imagine that writers, having chosen the most private of professions, should be any good at performing in public, or should have the slightest desire to tell their secrets to interviewers from ladies' magazines?" -- so that essay is in many ways the last glimpse she has permitted of the person behind the writer. To the purpose at hand, a discussion of her fourth novel, "The Clock Winder," one passage is especially pertinent:
"People have always seemed funny and strange to me, and touching in unexpected ways. I can't shake off a sort of mist of irony that hangs over whatever I see. Probably that's what I'm trying to put across when I write; I may believe that I'm the only person who holds this view of things. And I'm always hurt when a reader says that I choose only bizarre or eccentric people to write about. It's not a matter of choice; it just seems to me that even the most ordinary person, in real life, will turn out to have something unusual at his center."
Heaven knows the characters in "The Clock Winder" are eccentric -- all of them -- and some readers might be inclined to argue that a few of them achieve true bizarreness, but what Tyler says in the paragraph above places them in the proper perspective: They aren't eccentric because they're abnormal, they're eccentric because they're human. In almost all her books, which now number close to a dozen and a half, Tyler has explored the oddities of humanity with a cool yet loving eye, finding unexpected depth in ordinary people and showing how they manage to hang on to each other despite all the forces that conspire to drive them apart.
"The Clock Winder" was published in 1972, when Tyler was 30 years old. She had graduated from Duke at age 19, pursued Russian studies at Columbia University's graduate school, taken a few odd jobs, gotten married, moved to Baltimore and had two daughters. She had published three novels -- "If Morning Ever Comes" (1965), "The Tin Can Tree" (1966) and "A Slipping Down Life" (1970) -- all of which had received reviews ranging from enthusiastic to respectful but none of which had made much of a dent in the marketplace. Some publishers in those days were still willing to stick with gifted young writers in the expectation -- more realistically, the unfounded hope -- that someday they might turn profitable. Knopf was sticking steadily by Tyler.
It didn't have much more commercial luck with "The Clock Winder" than with its three predecessors, but in hindsight we can see that this novel marks two important changes in Tyler's career that foreshadowed the great success she was to enjoy beginning in 1982 with "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant." The first is that though eccentric characters remain her hallmark, as of "The Clock Winder" they are part of or connected to families rather than merely lone individuals looking for love or whatever other bonds fate is willing to afford them. The second is that in "The Clock Winder" she found Baltimore, that eccentric and lovable city, as the proper setting for her fiction. Far more often than not, it has been her setting ever since.
My own fondness for the novel, a fondness that upon second reading strikes me as perhaps slightly disproportionate to its actual merits, is explained in large part by its location in a particular Baltimore neighborhood called Roland Park, where I lived for nearly two decades. It is a leafy place with twisting roads and rambling late-Victorian wood-frame houses -- Lawrence Kasdan's film of Tyler's "The Accidental Tourist" was made there, as were Barry Levinson's "Diner" and "Avalon" -- that Tyler put on the literary map.
Baltimore has been essential to Tyler's fiction for three decades -- surely she now has more legitimate claim to being the city's Boswell than even H.L. Mencken -- and that connection should never be underestimated in any assessment of her work, but the really important thing about "The Clock Winder" is its immersion in family. By 1972 she and her husband -- Taghi Modarressi, who was to become a celebrated child psychiatrist while writing, on the side, his own wonderful novels -- had two daughters. As she says in her "Still Just Writing" essay:
"It seems to me that since I've had children, I've grown richer and deeper. They may have slowed down my writing for a while, but when I did write, I had more of a self to speak from. After all, who else in the world do you have to love, no matter what? Who else can you absolutely not give up on? My life seems more intricate. Also more dangerous."
That, when you get to the heart of it, is what "The Clock Winder" is about. At its center are two women. Pamela Emerson, once a "Roland Park debutante," now the mother of seven grown children, has recently been widowed and left alone in her quintessential Roland Park house -- "six fireplaces, slate in the sunporch, a butler's pantry as big as a dining room, and elegant open inserts like spool-bed headboards above every doorway" -- but the house is falling apart and Mrs. Emerson is incapable of coping with it: "She was not a stupid woman, but she was used to being taken care of."
She is trying to move the porch furniture into the garage when a tall girl in jeans stops and offers to help. Her name is Elizabeth Abbott. She is 23 years old and has been drifting from job to job -- she had "wandered through various northern cities stuffing envelopes, proofreading textbooks, and substituting for mailmen. And been fired from every one" -- after quitting her college in North Carolina. Mrs. Emerson nonetheless senses competence in her and offers to hire her to do housework. Elizabeth is glad to have the job -- her instinct is to accept pretty much any old invitation that comes her way -- but she certainly doesn't want to be Mrs. Emerson's maid. She wants to be a "handyman," a notion that astonishes Mrs. Emerson -- "Well, I never heard of such a thing" -- but she quickly caves in and hires Elizabeth for $40 a week (the time is 1960) plus room and board.
Elizabeth gets right to work in her own fashion, which is a mixture of purposefulness and improvisation: "Elizabeth had nothing against housework but she preferred doing things she hadn't done before. She liked surprising herself." She's surprised right away when Mrs. Emerson wins a turkey in a lottery -- a real live tom turkey, with plenty of strut in him -- and then asks Elizabeth to behead him in time for Thanksgiving. What follows is a nicely turned comic scene with an unexpected and ominous ending -- a scene that anticipates the similar, but considerably funnier, scene in "The Accidental Tourist" involving a cat, a Welsh corgi and a clothes dryer.
The end of the turkey hunt exposes a side of Mrs. Emerson's son Timothy that is unanticipated and soon has calamitous consequences. A death occurs, the exact cause of which is known only to Elizabeth. Up to that point she has inadvertently become the tie that more or less binds a very dysfunctional family, a role she accepted with reluctance and a certain pleasure in martyrdom, but after that everything changes:
"It used to be Elizabeth who managed this family. [Mrs. Emerson's son] Matthew never realized that till now. She was the one they had leaned on -- he and his mother and Timothy, and the house itself, whose rooms had taken on her clear sunny calmness and her smell of fresh wood chips. Only now, when she was needed most, Elizabeth had changed. With the others present she looked bewildered and out of place, like any ordinary stranger who had stumbled into the midst of a family in mourning."
Out of place is exactly what Elizabeth is. She is in the family but not of it. The Emerson children are strange -- "Margaret was moody, Andrew unbalanced, Melissa high-strung," and so forth -- but they share a bond of family that is denied to Elizabeth so long as she insists on her independence. So she throws up her hands -- "she had had enough of Emersons" -- and goes back to North Carolina, where her pious parents fret over her and a "sweet and patient" young man named Dommie pines for her.
Tyler is somewhat inclined toward, but does not insist upon, happy endings, and "The Clock Winder" closes on a Tyleresque note: a measure of family happiness and a faintly discordant, though not jarring, note. Tyler knows that life isn't so much a business of ending -- though of course ultimately it does just that -- as of blundering on, and she knows that the lives of her characters don't end when her books end. As she says in "Still Just Writing," "if I were remotely religious, I'd believe that a little gathering of my characters would be waiting for me in heaven when I died. 'Then what happened?' I'd ask them. 'How have things worked out, since the last time I saw you?' "
Tyler hadn't gotten it all together when she wrote "The Clock Winder," though she was a lot closer when she finished it than when she began. Its shape is a little loose, some of the secondary characters never quite come into focus, and one wants to know a bit more about the husband whose death sets all these events in motion than is doled out in one long paragraph. Reading "The Clock Winder" is a pleasure, but also a reminder that though Tyler's work would get stronger in each of her next four books -- "Celestial Navigation" (1975), "Searching for Caleb" (1976), "Earthly Possessions" (1977) and "Morgan's Passing" (1980) -- she still had a decade to go before the triumph of "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant."
Still, savor the pleasures of "The Clock Winder," for there are plenty of them: two splendid characters in Mrs. Emerson and Elizabeth Abbott, page after page of utterly convincing dialogue, quiet humor and keen observation. There are passages that, should you encounter them out of context, you would immediately recognize as pure Anne Tyler. Here's one of them:
"Grandchildren were not all they were cracked up to be. She held onto that thought a minute, enjoying it, before she flicked it away. Grandchildren were wonderful. What else did she have to live for? Her committee work was fading out; her friends were turning into droning old ladies or even, some of them, dying. Mornings, when she came downstairs in a fresh crisp dress and looked all around her at the high ceilings dripping cobwebs, she sometimes wondered why she had bothered to get up. The house seemed thinner-walled, like an old and brittle shell, and she was a little dried-up scrap of seaweed rattling around in its vastness. But then she would remember her children, who descended and spread out from her like a fan, and their children spreading out further; and she felt grand and deep and bountiful, a creamy feeling that she held to tightly all through her empty mornings. She felt it now. She rose and made her way to the hall again, for no other purpose than to fill all the other rooms with her richness while it lasted."
It doesn't last long; Tyler knows it can't. But while it's there it's wonderful, and no one conveys both its wonder and its evanescence more keenly than Anne Tyler does.
"The Clock Winder" is available in an Ivy Books paperback ($5.95).
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.